Atmospheric theatre

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The Gateway Theatre in Jefferson Park, Chicago. The theater's Baroque spire is a replica of one on the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
The front of the Auckland Civic Theatre, with its Indian Moghul palace motifs

An atmospheric theatre is a type of movie palace that was popular in the 1920s in America. "Rather than seating the theatre patrons in a boxlike, formal setting as passive observers of stage entertainment, the atmospheric design transported them to an exotic European courtyard or garden. A plain cerulean sky replaced the ornate dome of traditional theatre design. Wispy floating clouds produced by a projector replaced crystal chandeliers and gilt. Trees, plants, vines and taxidermy birds replaced gold leaf. Arches, trellises, balconies and plaster statuary replaced marble, painted wood panels and crystal chandeliers. As the entertainment was about to begin, lighting effects created the illusion of a setting sun, as colors changed from yellow to red to mauve. Small lights, arranged in the ceiling in constellation patterns, twinkled to create a sense of infinite space. The atmospheric theatre design made the theatre patron an active, comfortable resident of an imaginary time and place, not a passive, aloof occupant of an oppressive formal space."[1]

The extravagantly designed theaters of the early twentieth century were expensive to build. These classically designed theaters required an elaborate auditorium ceiling, usually with one or more grand chandeliers. An atmospheric theater only required a simple, smooth dome with low-wattage lights to simulate twinkling stars. This is not to say atmospheric theaters were always simple in design. The side walls of the theaters often featured very complex elements that created a fantasy outdoor setting like being in a village, garden, or on the grounds of a grand palace.

The most successful promoter of the style was John Eberson. He credited the Hoblitzelle Majestic Theatre (Houston, 1923) as the first.[2] Before the end of the 1920s he designed around 100 atmospheric theatres in the U.S. and a few other countries, personally selecting the furnishings and art objects.

Atmospheric theatres in the United States[edit]

Designed by John Eberson[edit]

John Eberson was the most successful promoter and designer of the atmospheric style. Sixteen of his atmospheric theatres in the United States are still in operation:

Moorish Revival

The theater was built in 1929 by Marcus Loew and designed by theater architect John Eberson. It opened as Loew's Theatre and seats 5,000 people. The auditorium is designed to resemble a night in a Moorish garden. Twinkling stars and drifting clouds travel across the domed ceiling. Located on Akron’s South Main Street, the theater’s entrance lobby extends over the Ohio and Erie Canal. The theater has a small multicolored terra cotta façade dominated by a large marquee. The interior of the entrance and lobby is designed to resemble a Moorish castle with Mediterranean decor, complete with medieval style carvings, authentic European antiques and Italian alabaster sculptures. A grand full-sized organ hidden beneath the stage rises to the stage level on a special elevator.[3] The theater closed for comprehensive restoration and expansion in 2001 and reopened in 2002.

The Indiana Theatre has a Spanish courtyard design and was one of the first Eberson theatres to exhibit atmospheric elements. While not fully atmospheric, the Indiana Theatre's original lighting system gave a blue hue to the auditorium ceiling and scattered light to simulate stars. The tile and terrazzo flooring, shapes of windows, prominence of Spanish coats of arms, Churrigueresque exterior, as well as numerous plaster designs that were seen first in the Indiana Theatre became a framework for later designs. Eberson stated, "Into this Indiana Theatre I have put my very best efforts and endeavors in the art of designing a modern theatre such as I have often pictured as what I would do were I given a free hand."[4]

Renaissance Revival. The Majestic Theatre, constructed in 1920, was the first Eberson theatre to use a simulated outdoor sky ceiling.

Spanish courtyard

Moorish Revival

Spanish courtyard

Spanish courtyard

A John Eberson-designed theater, the Palace Theatre (Marion, Ohio) was built in 1928 and renovated in 1976. With a Spanish Revival courtyard design, the theatre features low voltage lighting in the ceiling to mimic stars and the original reconditioned cloud machine to simulate moving clouds. Alcoves in the theatre contain stuffed birds, including a macaw that Eberson sometimes included in his interior design work, and most of the original Pietro Caproni statues.[5]

Spanish Baroque


Spanish Courtyard

  • Astro Theatre (Omaha, NE) (formerly Riviera Theatre) (Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center)


  • State Theatre (Kalamazoo, MI)

Spanish courtyard

The Tampa Theatre was built in 1926. Designed by John Eberson, the Tampa is a superior example of the atmospheric style featuring an auditorium that resembles a Mediterranean courtyard under a nighttime sky. Featured on the theater's opening night was the silent film The Ace of Cads starring Adolph Menjou.

This John Eberson-designed Italian Renaissance atmospheric theater opened in 1928 and features an outdoor Mediterranean courtyard motif. It was built to seat 2,300, but the current configuration allows for 1,700.

Designed by other architects[edit]

Other architects also designed atmospheric theatres. These include the following:

The 7th Street Theatre was built in 1928, seats over 950 people, and features an outdoor Spanish garden motif.

The Fox Theatre was built in 1929 and is the city's only surviving movie palace. The original architecture and décor can be roughly divided into two architectural styles: Islamic architecture (building exterior, auditorium, Grand Salon, mezzanine Gentlemen’s Lounge and lower Ladies Lounge) and Egyptian architecture (Egyptian Ballroom, mezzanine Ladies Lounge and lower Gentlemen’s Lounge). The 4,678-seat auditorium replicates an Arabian courtyard complete with a night sky of 96 embedded crystal "stars" (a third of which flicker) and a projection of clouds that slowly drift across the "sky."

The Fox Theatre was built 1929-30. It was designed to evoke the garden of a South Asian temple.[6]

The Gateway Theatre was built in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood, the Gateway Theatre is an atmospheric theater designed by architect Mason Rapp of the prestigious firm of Rapp & Rapp in 1930. It was the city's first movie theater built exclusively for the talkies.

(1931). John Eberson's last atmospheric design, 17 N. Harvey Ave., Oklahoma City.

The Paradise Center for the Arts was Built in 1929 on the site of the former Faribault Opera House, the Paradise was recently renovated. The motif is one of a Moorish courtyard with Turkish caps over the doors, turrets and 'stonework' walls. Originally built to seat 915, the Paradise has been altered to seat 300.

The Polk Theatre (Lakeland, Florida) was built in 1928 and designed by architect, James E. Casale and was built to simulate a Mediterranean village.

  • Saenger Theatre (New Orleans, Louisiana)

The Saenger Theatre (New Orleans, Louisiana) was built in 1927 for the Saenger Theatres chain by architect Emile Weil, Its interior evokes a baroque Florentine courtyard. Originally seating approximately 4,000, in 1980 its seating was reduced to approximately 2,736 and it began to function as a performing arts center with occasional film screenings.

Atmospheric theatres outside of the United States[edit]

The following are atmospheric theatres located outside of the United States:

The Auckland Civic Theatre is the largest surviving atmospheric cinema in Australasia, built in 1929 and featuring an India-inspired motif. Seating 2,750 viewers, in 2000 it was restored to near-original condition.[7] Peter Jackson used the Civic in his remake of the film King Kong.

The Capitol Theatre is located in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada, and is one of the last three atmospheric movie theatres still in operation in Canada. Constructed in 1930, the interior of the auditorium was designed to resemble a walled medieval courtyard surrounded by a forest. It was also one of the first cinemas in Canada built expressly for talking pictures. It opened on Friday, August 15, 1930 with the film "Queen High" starring Charles Ruggles and Ginger Rogers.

Le Grand Rex is the largest cinema, theater and music venue in Paris, with 2,800 seats. Opened in 1932, the cinema features a starred "sky" overhead, as well as interior fountains, and resembles a Mediterranean courtyard at night. The cinema features one of the largest screen in Europe.

The Lido Theatre was built in 1930 and designed by Max Blankstein. The Lido is the world's longest continuously operating atmospheric theatre (85 years straight as of 2015). The interior features an outdoor Mediterranean courtyard motif. It was built to seat 600 people but the current configuration allows for 350. The Lido has avoided major renovations, remaining close to its original design. A rare survivor in its class, one of the few cinemas to stay in the same family for four generations, it remains owned by the Rivalin family.[8]

The Rialto Cinema originally seated 2,000. The cinema has been converted into a six-theater multiplex. Renovations in 1998 restored its Moorish-themed features and night sky.


  1. ^ Hoffman, Scott L. A Theatre History of Marion, Ohio: John Eberson's Palace and Beyond. Charlotte, NC: The History Press. 2015.
  2. ^ Eberson, John. “New Theatres for Old.” Motion Picture News, December 30, 1927.
  3. ^ Akron Civic Theatre (official theatre website)
  4. ^ The Indiana Theatre: An Achievement. Terre Haute, IN: William R. Simmons. 1922. p. 8. 
  5. ^ Hoffman, Scott L. A Theatre History of Marion, Ohio: John Eberson's Palace and Beyond. Charlotte, NC: The History Press, 2015.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Civic Theatre Building". Register of Historic Places. Heritage New Zealand. Retrieved 2009-12-21. 
  8. ^ Lido Theatre (official theater website)

Further reading[edit]

  • Earl, John. "Landscape in the Theatre: Historical Perspective." Landscape Research 16, no. 1 (1991): 21–29.
  • Hoffman, Scott L. A Theatre History of Marion, Ohio: John Eberson's Palace and Beyond. Charlotte, NC: The History Press. 2015.
  • Mendiola, Sister Christine. "The Atmospheric Style of Theatre Design." Masters Thesis, U. Akron. 1974.